The British and Europe: In, Out, or Somewhere in Between?

David Cameron appears to have strong support from the British people for taking a tough line on the EU budget. It's far from being a black and white picture however.

As Joe Murphy points out in his Evening Standard article on this week's Ipsos MORI poll, David Cameron appears to have strong support from the British people for taking a tough line on the EU budget.

Some 31% want to see it cut in real terms, with 46% favouring a freeze and only a small proportion, 14%, wanting to see more expenditure.

Recent years have seen the British, already wary, becoming even less keen on closer ties with Europe. In 1996, 24% wanted to see closer political and economic integration. Today that number is just 13%.

It's far from being a black and white picture however. This 13% wanting closer ties comes from a four-part question similar to those we ask in our Scottish polling, where there are options for full independence, 'devo-max' etc. When we provide a number of potential positions on Europe, the majority of Britons sit in the middle ground, either wishing to see the relationship stay broadly as it is (29%) or remain in an economic community but without political links (28%). A quarter (23%) want to leave the EU altogether, slightly up on 1996, but hardly a sea change.

Push people one way or the other, however, and the balance of opinion - just - is in the 'leave' camp.

This latest poll finds 44% saying they would vote to stay in the EU in a referendum, compared to 48% who would say 'no'.

Were there actually a referendum in prospect, we would say this was 'too close to call'. For example, among those who say they are most likely to vote in a General Election (a reasonable proxy measure for our purposes here), the balance of opinion is 49% to 45% in favour of remaining in the European Union. Most Conservatives are in the 'no' camp (58%); Lib Dem and Labour supporters tend to say we should stay in (56% and 52%) respectively. Faced with this mythical referendum, we would then go on to say there is 'all to play for'.

We do need to be careful about writing very long essays here about what all this means. We know that the public are just not thinking about Europe every day. Only one in twenty say it's one of the key issues facing Britain. And we know that, to coin a phrase, public attitudes have 'flip-flopped' considerably over the last four decades. In March 1980, just five years after the historic 'yes' vote in the referendum, we found just 26% saying they would stay in the 'Common Market'. By June 1991 that figure had risen to a high of 63%. And by the turn of the millennium, the balance of opinion on this referendum was broadly as they are now, ie not particularly settled.

It's worth taking a moment to go back to the 1975 referendum. The youngest voter at the polling booths then is now 55 years old. These voters do seem to be disappointed with what they voted for all those years ago. Today just 36% of British over 55s would vote to stay in the EU, and this falls to 21% among the over 75s.

In addition to their numbers (they make up more than a third of the total electorate), the over 55s are of course more likely to vote, and so are key to the success or failure of any election campaign. But we should also look at younger voters. Among under 35s, all born since the 1975 referendum, we find 56% in favour of staying in the EU, and this rises to 64% among 18-24s. They've grown up with the European Union, and they would appear to need some persuading that leaving is the right thing to do.

Finally, Scotland. In the 1975 referendum this was the most euro-sceptic part of the UK, with the Shetland and Western Isles actually voting against. Today, with the referendum on independence getting closer, and the question of Scotland's future role in Europe at the heart of that debate, it is the Scots who are the most in favour of staying in the EU. This brings us into the territory of some further (and rather speculative) maths, including the dynamics of a Scotland-less UK referendum on Britain's future relationship with Europe.

But that's probably for another day...


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